Lifting the lid on gender treatment disparity in route-setting.
By Joanne Heng
I used to be a route-setter.
When climbing gyms in Melbourne closed in March due to COVID, the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic gave me much needed time to pause and reflect. While I absolutely love route-setting and find immense joy in coaching women, the environment I was working in was slowly wearing me down inside. Lockdown gave me the time to confront issues that had been gnawing at me for a very long time and in the end, I decided to quit my job.
Perhaps it was an odd choice to make during a global pandemic when uncertainty was the only certainty I could rely on. However, the gender treatment disparity I had encountered for years finally took its toll and I decided enough was enough.
Ever since I began working in this industry, I’ve noticed a distinct discrepancy in the way I was treated compared to my male counterparts. For the longest time I have wanted to speak out but didn’t know how. But if the events of 2020 have taught me anything, it’s that putting your head down and staying silent does not bring about change.
It is my hope that by sharing my experiences as a female route-setter it brings greater awareness to the wider climbing community that these gender treatment issues are prevalent and should be discussed more openly.
So here is my story.
Returning to Melbourne in 2017 after a decade abroad, I decided to leave my past life as a biochemist and pursue something I was passionate about. Climbing had well and truly become integral to my life and I was ecstatic to land a job at a bouldering gym. I was hired to work the desk but I expressed an interest to learn how to route-set - something I’ve always wanted to do since my gym rat days in Scotland and Austria. I was pleasantly surprised that an expression of interest was all that was needed to be allowed to attend setting sessions and help out with the fore-running. It was thrilling to be a part of the process and I was keen to learn more.
With a distinct lack of representation from female setters, I saw this as an opportunity to get my foot in the door and establish myself more firmly in the industry. I felt the sport had gained enough popularity that setting a variety of climbing styles to suit a range of body types would become more important. To me, I saw an increasing need for more diversity in setting teams as something I could capitalise on.
While I knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me, my journey as a route-setter has been a bumpy one - to say the least. Volunteering my time so I could learn the ropes, the first few months I often felt scrutinized and thus was fearful of making mistakes. At times I got harsh feedback, but I took this to be normal - there was a lot I had yet to learn and critical feedback on my routes was to be expected. But I noticed the way in which I was given feedback about my routes differed to those of the male setters. Criticism of my routes were rebukes and on several occasions it was insinuated that my setting reflected a lack of empathy towards customers. Hearing this kind of feedback on a regular basis was infuriating as I was one of the few setters on the team that coached customers every week - something which I love to do. Telling myself I was just being sensitive, I tried to suck it up and put in the hours in order to gain more experience. “Once I get my skills up to speed, I’ll get treated like the more experienced (male) setters” - was the mantra I told myself.
But even after becoming a paid route-setter (and gaining a full-time position at the gym), I still noticed a discrepancy in my treatment compared to other, male setters. With the prevailing perception that women are not able to set hard boulders for men, I was often assigned to set predominantly easier climbs using older hold sets for much of my first year as a route-setter. I have no qualms about a novice setter being assigned to set beginner problems - it’s an excellent way to learn the fundamentals. However, it seemed to me that female setters were relegated to this task for much longer compared to male setters and that climbing grades almost always trumped setting experience.
Learning to set within a pervasive ‘boy’s club’ mentality, I wondered if I would ever meet their standards. Feeling I first needed to climb more ‘respectable’ grades, I was reluctant to voice my desire to set harder routes for the gym. On the few occasions when I did set something outside my comfort zone, I found myself either battling back tears as the flaws in my route were patronisingly pointed out, or worse still, my problem was left untested by those who were in a better position to provide feedback and suggest changes. Both scenarios have been punishing blows to my confidence and made me even more hesitant to push my setting.
This all left me wondering if I had sufficient mettle to become a route-setter. My science days taught me how to take on critical feedback but here I seemed to be incapable of shaking the feeling of inadequacy with my route-setting. Throwing in the towel crossed my mind on more than one occasion - the learning environment was demoralising and I knew that if I failed to breach my route-setting comfort zone, I would never progress. However, I clung on to my strongly-held belief that female setters are an important commodity for the climbing community. I also knew that if I wanted to see change, I had to continue to fight for my worth. It was this sole belief that kept me going.
Perhaps it was due to the setting arrangements I was working within that made me reluctant to confide with others in the team. I was part of a large pool of more than 15 setters (four of which were female) and with four setters assigned at a time, I was usually the sole female on any particular setting day. While my setting teammates were largely patient and willing to give advice and assistance, the nature of the feedback I got during fore-running made me feel like I was lagging far behind them in terms of route-setting competency. Fearing that voicing my insecurities would only jeopardize my future opportunities to set, I kept my mouth shut.
It was only after the departure of two female setters from the team that I began to suspect that my experience may not be unique. Having never spoken to any of my female colleagues about their own setting experiences, I knew I would need to open up if I wanted to learn their stories. I decided to seek out my former colleagues - I wanted to know their reasons for leaving. Sadly, what I found in their accounts was a common theme: emotional mistreatment. In one way, knowing that I was not alone in my situation gave me a sense of relief. But on the other hand, I find it utterly infuriating that on more than one occasion, a talented female setter has decided to quit because of the way she was being treated.
I wish I could have said that through sheer persistence and doggedness, I have now garnered the respect of my male counterparts, am given the same opportunities as them and have renewed confidence in my setting ability. But I can’t. While my setting experience did improve after changes to management, the presence of female setters in the team continued to feel like a token gesture.
The last few years have taken a significant emotional toll on me and I have decided change is necessary. For months I have held inside the pain from my setting experience, feelings of inadequacy are now status quo. I feel like a shell of my former self and my confidence is shattered.
Should women have to put up with this amount of emotional turmoil to prove their worth in route-setting in 2020 and beyond? Should they ever? Does the climbing industry truly value diversity in their route-setters? I whole-heartedly believe that diversity is the way forward but persevering as a female route-setter has felt like an uphill battle and my emotional well-being has taken quite a beating.
My decision to share my story has not been an easy one. It is my hope that by providing a brief insight into how some women are at times treated in this industry, we as a community can initiate a conversation about discrepancies in gender treatment and work towards making positive changes to rectify this.
About the author:
Jo Heng is a Melbourne-based boulderer who escapes to the Grampians to clamber on rocks whenever the opportunity arises. Having lived in both Scotland and Austria, she has a deep love of the mountains and being in high places. She has worked as a route-setter and climbing coach since 2017 and particularly enjoys introducing women to bouldering. If possible, she hopes to continue to route-set.